Baden-Baden: thermal therapy in 17 steps

Third in a series about travel in Germany. The majority of Wisconsin residents, a higher percentage than any other state, trace their roots to a German-speaking country.

It’s early evening on a Thursday in autumn as I twist through cobbled streets and head into a majestic old building, up a long, marble staircase and to the registration desk. I am extremely glad to know no one and resist the urge to make a quick U-turn.

“Sprechen sie Englisch?” I ask, and the clerk nods affirmatively.

“My first time,” I say.

“It is no problem,” she reassures, “but all are naked here. Today the men and women are separate.”

Think “spa” in the United States, and we envision private, darkened rooms with restful music and appointments for massages or pedicures. Not so in Baden-Baden, where hot springs for many centuries have opened the pores and soothed the muscles of all who choose to disrobe, steam, sweat and soak. Together.

Only a few yards from me is the contemporary Caracalla Spa, where bathers wear swimsuits and the vibe is family-friendly. Friends say it was beautiful but not highly unusual, by American standards, except for the mixed-sex dressing area.

I choose the 17-step bathing ritual at Friedrichsbad, a thermal spa that has been around 130 years, because of the authenticity and rich history. This is a big part of what makes Baden-Baden, in the foothills of the Black Forest, one of the best-known spa cities in the world.

The cost is about $30, and most bathers spend two to three hours, about one-half the time that I have available. I strap on a little watch with an electronic chip, to gain access to the women’s changing room and a locker. I begin with hot – but not oppressive – water temperatures and slowly work my way to the cooler, more invigorating stations. I pay about $15 extra to interrupt the process with a 10-minute, brisk scrub-down with Chantal, a practitioner from France.

“Hard or soft bristles?” she asks. “Is it OK to brush your toes?”

The soapy scrub is all business, not meant to lull anyone into oblivion, and then Chantal uses her hands to quickly rinse fingertips to feet. I’m good to go, so the dipping and dunking resumes. Signs in each room suggest the number of minutes I should invest.

A starched white sheet goes over a wooden chaise lounge in the dry sauna. A faint aroma of minerals permeates the steam room, where water pours through copper tubing as it did when Friedrichsbad was built. A dozen women sit or stretch out on thick slabs of tile.

As time slips, so do my worries and self-consciousness, particularly since the bathing proceeds like business as usual for everybody else, regardless of age or body size. Friends chat as though they’ve been seated for tea. Solo bathers seem deep in thought or meditation.

Look up, and colorful mosaics loom in ceiling domes, several stories above ground. Glorious.

At station eight or nine, I sink into a pool and glance through an open archway, just in time to see a naked man lift himself out while another begins a slow breast stroke across the biggest bathing area. This is the only place where the sexes may mingle – today.

Near the end, I get a warm towel-blanket to dry off and sit on. At the lotion station, I soften face to toes before entering the nap room, the last stop before redressing. A sign says lingering can last up to 30 minutes here, but I have only time for 10.

An aide agrees to nudge me at a specific time, then stretches a fresh, linen sheet over a blanket-topped twin bed, one of about 20 in this room. When I lie down, both the sheet and blanket are wrapped around me, to form a warm cocoon.

Baden-Baden, population 54,000, was not bombed during World War II and thus retains much of its historic charm. It contains no industry and is considered the “summer capital of Europe” because of its thermal springs, which are purported to have therapeutic value for vascular and arthritic conditions.

The city’s casino, the oldest in Germany, was described by Marlene Dietrich as the world’s most beautiful. Guided tours occur in mornings; gambling begins in mid afternoon and ends long before sunrise daily. Unlike the U.S., the atmosphere is quiet, refined and a dress code is enforced. Think tie and coat.

The southwest Germany city is less than 10 miles from the French border. Also drawing a crowd: concerts at the Kurhaus, built in the 1820s. For more: www.baden-baden.de.

Less than 30 miles south of Baden-Baden are the 10 Baiersbronn villages, combined population 15,000 and inside the Black Forest. The standard for fine dining is high: Three hotel/resort restaurants earn a total of seven Michelin stars, the highest concentration per capita in Germany.

So learn to make Black Forest torte during a class at Traube Tonbach, dine at one of the six restaurants at Hotel Bareiss (a three-star Michelin location) or stay a couple of nights at Hotel Sackmann. Travelers lounge the days away or work up an appetite while hiking the beautiful and shaded Black Forest trails.

For more: www.baiersbronn.de

Trains smoothly link many cities in Germany, including Baden-Baden and the Baiersbronn villages. The hauptbahnof (main train station) typically is within a walk of the center of activity.

For more about travel in Germany: www.cometogermany.com, 212-661-7200.

Friends of the Wisconsin Historical Society present a Sept. 19-21 excursion of ethnic heritage that involves longtime restaurants and other attractions, including Mader’s German restaurant in Milwaukee and the Dheinsville settlement in Germantown.

“Back in the more prosperous 1980s the state set up the Immigrant Settlement Trail, to link ethnic communities falling within a 200-mile corridor in east Wisconsin,” says Frank Beaman of Mineral Point. “It lasted only a few years before budget cuts left the road signs and other paraphernalia on the floor.

“It’s still a topic on the Internet, and that’s where we got the idea for the three-day trip. So this outing is unique – such a tour is no longer offered by the bus lines, and as far as I know you cannot even obtain a road guide.”

Tour cost is $460, based on shared room occupancy. For more: www.friendswisconsinhistory.org, 608-625-4042.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.